Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Russia to Alaska... by rail

I don't remember a time when I wasn't enchanted with the idea of overnight train travel. But the trip that took my long-held-but-abstract love of sleeper trains and made it real was our 2008 honeymoon journey on the transmongolian line, from St Petersburg to Beijing. Indeed, we've often talked about going back to do it - or the transsiberian line to Vladivostok - again in the winter.

Even then, there were rumours of possible Russian investment in opening up a tunnel to the Americas. It didn't seem likely to happen, but the idea caught my imagination. A couple of days ago, the story was suddenly in the news again.

If it does ever happen, I'll be first in line for a ticket. I'd take the train from London to Paris, through Europe to Moscow, across Siberia to eastern Russia, through the new tunnel to Alaska, and down (eventually) to New York and the week-long sail back to England. I think the whole trip would probably take three to four weeks, even without sightseeing breaks, so it would take quite some planning.

But don't hold your breath - even if everything happens on schedule, the line wouldn't be open before 2041.

Meanwhile, if the idea attracts you as much as it does me, go and watch the BBC video that shows the proposed route in detail.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Press Releases

Has anyone else had an influx of press releases lately?

In the past couple of weeks, I've been treated to lengthy missives from a hovercraft company (twice), a provisioner of sustainable living & cookery courses, three publishers, two charity campaigns, an airport, a train company, and America's National Peanut Board (who knew that such a thing even existed?!)

For the most part, I'm left wondering why they contacted me. Anyone who's even glanced through my blog archives would surely realise that I don't rehash other people's stories: I only write about things where I have personal experience. So unless you're going to offer me a ride on your hovercraft (note to friendly hovercraft companies: please do!), what makes you think I'm likely to write about it?

I did respond to one of the book announcements, and the publisher is now sending me a copy of the book (about skiing), so that was productive. I wouldn't mind more like that.

Anyway, I wondered, is this happening to everyone (more than it used to), or have I just now ended up on some list somewhere? If you do get this kind of message, how often do you reply? And how often does it lead anywhere beyond an exchange of pleasantries?

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Death and Cognac

It isn't every day that you meet an Italian who lives in Paris, and who's just won a prize for his translation from Spanish into English.

But then it isn't every day that my small town hosts an international poetry competition. In this case, it was a contest to translate the poems of Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca, and the first prize winner, Alberto, came to stay with us while he was visiting to read his poem.

Alberto even invited us along to the evening event where he was reading. There was some great music and a short (silent) film, and then the shortlisted poems were read out. Not all the translators could be there to read their own work, but the judges stepped up to do some of the reading themselves.

The judges, two US academics, were across for the Cheltenham literature festival, so they were able to come to Stroud as part of the same trip. But in contrast to what I imagine of their (sold out) literature festival appearance, we had the advantage of a small room and plenty of opportunities to chat with them.

It was a really fun evening, and introduced me to a few poems I wouldn't otherwise have heard - in new and excellent translations. We had neither death nor cognac, but the title phrase was one that sticks in my mind, nevertheless. Also, did you know there was a version of the Spanish flag in which the lowest stripe was purple? I kind of wish they'd kept it that way...

Photos: Alberto reading, and later, asked to sign a copy of his poem.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Smoky Vegetable Stew

We had friends round for dinner last week - but it was also a day when I had to give a presentation and prepare a conference paper for a looming deadline, so I didn't have as much time for cooking as I would usually. This stew was quick and easy to throw together, and I served it with wild rice, which is nutty and substantial enough to offset the soft texture of the vegetables.

Smoky Vegetable Stew
Serves 4

1 large aubergine
3 courgettes
¼ butternut squash
2tsp olive oil
2 large onions
1 red pepper
2 tins of tomatoes, chopped
1tsp smoked paprika
1 stock cube
salt & pepper to taste

  1. Chop the vegetables into pieces, about 1 inch cubed.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy pan and fry the aubergine, courgette and squash for ten minutes.
  3. Add the tomatoes, seasonings, peppers, and onion.
  4. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for half an hour or until all the vegetables are cooked through.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Author Interview: Keryl Raist

I "met" Keryl through a group on Goodreads, where we're both members. Her first novel, Sylvianna, is a modern-day fantasy adventure with a strong romantic sub-plot. It's a long book but I read most of it on the five-hour Amtrak trip from New York to Manassas last month. I really enjoyed it (although there were a few passages that made me blush to read on the train!) so I thought it would be fun to get Keryl over here to answer a few questions.

Spoiler alert: this interview contains some mild spoilers for Sylvianna. I chatted with Keryl about this, and we don't think it should reduce your enjoyment of the book, but if you'd prefer to read it with no idea of what's to come then you may want to come back after reading the novel.

Let's start with the basics - tell me a little about your inspiration for Sylvianna.

I am, and I'm sure this will shock you deeply, a geek. Old school, hardcore, gamer geek. In college I lived in the Writer's House, and had the joy of some very creative friends who were also gamers. We were playing a RPG based on the Amber books by Roger Zelazny (which are brilliant) and my buddies came up with the very basic characters in my book. Magic user on the run from the apocalypse, the fairy stuck on earth, the buddy who vanishes, the geomancer in love with his boss' wife, and the healer who doesn't know what all is going on, are all basic character ideas from that game.

So that's where I got my basic character sketches from. Why the magic user had been involved in an apocalypse was interesting to me, so I began playing with it. Then, because it's a story written by me, it's got to have a romance and some theology. Especially in fantasy, where supernatural power and Gods are literally, physically, undeniably real, I feel like some level of theology is appropriate. I don't remember when I decided why Chris killed his God, but I do remember it was a turning point for the book. The original version was much darker, with Chris having done it knowing it would end up with everyone dead. But I began to like Chris, and Sarah, and I wanted something less grim for them.

So how much of your friends' original roleplay characters is left in the way your characters think and behave?

10%? Not all that much. Take Chris for example: his red hair, running away from the apocalypse, flesh melt, and missing his wife are all from the original character. All but the red hair I messed with pretty intensely. Why was he part of an apocalypse? That's entirely new. Why and how did he use flesh melt? Completely different. What happened to his wife? Also completely redone. Basically, my role playing buddies were a significantly less sympathetic group than my characters. We were having fun exploring our (very) dark sides, and when I began the book, I started off closer to the original characters. But the more I wrote, the more I began to like Sarah and Chris, the more I wanted them to be 'good' guys. So I toned down the evil, and made the characters more sympathetic.

Mostly the similarities remain in how the characters look, some key aspects of their back story, and some speech and mannerisms. The motivations, almost all of the back story, and all of the current plot are new.

Can you explain your decision to make Sarah Jewish? Do you think things would have turned out differently if she'd had a different religious background on Earth?

Originally, back on page one, Sarah was Jewish because I was interested in writing a character who wasn't the typical Urban Fantasy Heroine. They're usually godless or Christians. I've got a background in Religious Studies, and a long time ago I began to study Judaism, and found it compelling. I wanted to share what I liked about it with my readers. Over time, as I kept writing, and the story kept developing, Sarah's Judaism became more and more important to how the sequel shapes up.

I suppose most of Sylvianna would have been pretty close to the same if Sarah had been Christian, but I would have lost the opportunity for the home based religious interaction. For most Christians Church is where the majority of religious observance happens. For Jews, it's at home. So, some of my favorite scenes with Chris and Sarah would have had to been majorly restructured.

I also think, that had I written Sarah as a Christian, Chris' sexual acceptance/forgiveness arc wouldn't have worked as well. While it's true that there are plenty of devout Christians who do engage in pre-marital sex, I think if Sarah had had the same level of devotion as a Christian as she does as a Jew, their relationship would have remained chaste.

I can definitely say the things that will happen in the sequel would have been remarkably different if Sarah had been anything other than Jewish. The core of Christianity is forgiveness. Any and all sins can and will be forgiven by Christ, and Christians are supposed to emulate Jesus and forgive each other. Jews don't believe in that. They believe The Lord forgives sins against Himself, and that the rest of it is up to each individual you've wronged. In addition to that, Judaism is very big on Law, on following the Law and the creation of a just society.

As you know, there's a huge mess waiting for Sarah and Chris, and if she had been a devout Christian, what's coming up would have been very different.

Sylvianna is set on Earth, but there's a whole world in the background which we barely see, except in snatches of visions and memories. How did you go about constructing that world and its cultures?

Good question. I'd say The Ossolyn of Hidiri are an organic out growth of years as a gamer/history/religious studies wonk, but that sounds like a whole lot of thought didn't go into it, and it did.

So it worked something like this: I had an image of a character, who eventually became Ahni Al Ath Gyr Bui. Red hair, blue skin, white eyes. Why did he have these things? No idea. It looked cool. Likewise, I had his name, and also the name Cellin Ath Dath Wa. From there I built my Ossolyn naming structure, and once I had the names, I suddenly had positions for Cell and Ahni. Once I had positions for them, the others sort of fell into place. From there I started to round them out. I built a medieval-esque structure because that's the sort of world I'm most familiar with and could make the most 'real.'

Meanwhile, I knew I was going to destroy that world, and I knew my characters would be responsible. So I wanted it to be disagreeable enough so that the readers could sympathize with my characters. But it was also their home, so it had to be nice enough that the characters would miss it, and feel bad about what happened.

I knew that I had to come up with a compelling reason for apocalypse to be a worthwhile risk, so that meant the big bad had to be really big, and really bad.

And then there were just bits and pieces that hit me, and I liked them. So they got worked in. The war was one of those ideas. It wasn't part of the set up originally, but when it occurred to me, it really worked, so it got added into the mix.

As I wrote Sylvianna, I was also working on the back story and sequel. By the time Sylvianna was done I had about 75k words of back story finished as well. And that made for a very concrete world, culture, and storyline to play off of as I got into the edits and revisions on Sylvianna.

We've talked a little about the book, but what about your personal writing process? How do you get from page one to the end?

I use something called the BIC method. Butt in Chair. Every day, I sit down and write for at least two hours. I go to the gym, my kids go to the Kidzone, and I take advantage of the baby free time to write. Most days I write in the evening as well, but not all of them.

You change viewpoints a lot in the book, and the characters have very different levels of knowledge. Do you have any particular techniques for switching between different characters' thoughts?

I have a physical reminder I use when I'm writing. I did the different characters in different fonts so that I could easily "see" when I was in each character's P.O.V. Also for Sarah and Pat, what they know (or don't) is very much part of their motivations, so it made it easier to keep who knew what in mind.

Beyond that, there's very careful editing. I re-read the book like seventeen times to make sure no one knew anything they weren't supposed to. I'm working on the sequel now, and ran into a flashback where I completely muffed who knew what. Fortunately that wasn't too difficult to fix, but still... Mostly it's just a matter of really paying attention to what's on the page.

Thanks Keryl! Sylvianna is available in paperback or on Kindle. Personally, I can't wait for the sequel...

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Butternut Squash & Carrot Soup Recipe

It's been a very warm autumn so far, but the leaves are turning and the evenings are chilly, which is enough to justify putting together a nice, warming soup. This is a very simple recipe: the fresh vegetable flavours aren't overwhelmed by seasonings, and the cream just makes it all a little smoother. Of course, you could use vegan cream (or even soya yoghurt) to make the soup vegan.

I'm submitting this to October's No Croutons Required event, for which the theme this month is squashes. The last year has been crazy (what with redecorating almost the whole house) so it's been a while since I got around to entering NCR. Hopefully I can get to it a bit more regularly this winter.

Butternut Squash & Carrot Soup
Serves 4 (as a starter)

1 butternut squash
3 large carrots
1 large onion
2tbsp olive oil
2-3 sprigs of fresh rosemary
black pepper to taste
1 stock cube
300ml boiling water
4tbsp fresh cream
  1. Finely dice the carrots, buttnernut squash, and onions.
  2. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based pan.
  3. Fry the vegetables until softened.
  4. Add the stock cube, rosemary, and black pepper, along with the boiling water. Simmer over a low heat for an hour or so.
  5. Puree the soup (I usually use a potato masher, but you could also give it a few seconds in a blender) and return to the pan.
  6. Stir cream through the soup, and heat gently until piping hot. Serve immediately.

5:2 Intermittent Fasting button5:2 Diet
This soup has about 165 calories per serving, so it's a great fast day meal. You can ditch another 30 calories per portion by halving the amount of olive oil to fry the vegetables.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Torpedos in Stockholm

There's an impressive display of (hopefully inactive!) torpedoes outside the imposing mustard-coloured facade of Stockholm's Torpedverkstaden. I don't speak Swedish, but I assume that translates as something like "torpedo work station" (though stadt is 'town' in German, which doesn't help much).

A little further along, the same building bears the inscription Mindepartementet which (again without the aid of any Swedish vocabulary) I decided must approximately mean "mine department", though there were no mines on display to help out with this translation.

It looked like the buildings might have fallen out of use, though they're still in good condition; we certainly didn't see anyone making mines or torpedoes! I can just imagine this place getting a second lease of life as a quirky hotel, with a military theme. Unfortunately, I suspect the mundane reality is that it's being used for office space.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Apple Loaf Cake

One of our friends had a cake evening, recently, to which everyone was invited to bring a cake. We still have a garden full of apples, so I decided to make an apple cake. I didn't have a recipe to hand so I took a basic cake and threw in some fruit and cinnamon. It seemed to work pretty well, with a good balance of apple to cake.

Apple Loaf Cake

6oz sugar
4oz butter
2 eggs
6oz self-raising flour
2tsp cinnamon
2 large cooking apples
½ cup raisins

  1. Peel and core the apples, and chop into small pieces (about ½-1cm cubes). Submerge in water to avoid browning.
  2. Preheat the oven to 165°C (or a little higher if you don't have a fan oven) and grease a medium-sized loaf tin.
  3. Cream the butter and sugar together with a spoon. Break two eggs into the bowl and stir until the mixture is smooth.
  4. Fold in the flour and cinnamon until no dry patches remain.
  5. Drain the apple pieces, and add, along with the raisins, to the cake mixture. Mix thoroughly.
  6. Pour into the loaf tin, and bake for approximately 50 minutes - until you can insert a knife into the middle of the cake, and pull it out clean.
  7. Cool on a wire rack.

Thursday, 6 October 2011


I was reading a book this afternoon, which contains the line:

"you say tomato, I say tomahto"

It's not that I haven't heard this phrase before, but I don't think I've seen it written down, and it made me do a double-take.

You see, I pronounce 'tomato' as tomAHto anyway. So I read those words on the first pass as "you say tomahto, I say tomahto"... which doesn't mean anything. I assume the author is a tomAYto man.

This got me to thinking about which pronunciation is most prevalent - so I decided to google it. Here are the numbers:

string# results
tomayto tomahto148,000
tomato tomahto116,000
tomayto tomato52,500

This would seem to suggest that around twice as many people find the tomAYto pronunciation natural, compared to tomAHto (of those writing web pages about this phrase... the demographic of that set is rather a different question)

Of course, these results are from the UK Google (the only one I can access without complicated proxies). I'd be interested to know if the counts are different in the US.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

New York: Hungarian Pastries and Riverside Park

Our canalside walk at the weekend reminded me of one of the parks I visited in New York.

I'd popped out to meet Alice from The Rabbit Hole Report for lunch, and had half an hour to spare before meeting colleagues at Columbia, so I'd followed Alice's recommendation to the Hungarian Pastry Shop which is just around the corner from the university. One of the best things about bloggy friends is that they already know what you like, so their recommendations tend to hit the spot: the pastry shop was cute and unusual, and just my kind of place.

Then, just as I was finishing up my Hungarian coffee and picking at the final crumbs of my walnut pastry, my phone rang: my meeting had shifted back by an hour, and suddenly I had time to spare.

Earlier, we'd been chatting about the Riverside Park, but I hadn't thought I'd have time to check it out. I'd already walked the length of Central Park that morning, and it was a hot day, so I didn't want to exert myself too much. But meandering quietly between the trees for a while, with a light breeze coming off the river, was a perfect way to use up some time before the later meeting. I even settled on a bench with my Kindle for a while, to read and enjoy the view. It was really quiet, and I liked it more than Central Park, because I didn't feel like I was constantly a few steps away from a busy main road. I may be the only person who goes to a big city and looks for the quiet corners, but I do like to find a few moments' peace.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

A Stroll Along The Canal

It's been hot for a few days. Unexpectedly, unseasonally hot. I caught a bit of sun yesterday, and so with everything I had planned to do rendered somewhat impractical by the pounding headache, we instead went out for a gentle stroll along our local canal.

They've started a project to improve the canal, in Stroud. Endless roadworks and diversions while they've been building a new road bridge across a newly-cleaned section of canal. And when we got there, it was pretty nice.

Take a couple of steps further back, however, and it's a rather different story: the canal leading up to the new bridge is still a narrow channel, impossible to navigate by boat.

A few more photos from our walk will show you, there's quite a bit more work to be done before the canal will be back to its former glory. Locks have broken gates or no gates, reeds and rushes sometimes make such a thick carpet that you'd struggle to know there was water there at all, and in a few places the whole width is dammed with rock and earth. I'm looking forwards to the day when we can come this way by boat, but I'm not holding my breath...

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